LSU College of the Coast & Environment professor Dr. Mark Benfield has a new plan to measure plastic waste in the Mississippi River.
And just in time for Fat Tuesday.
Rather than gathering samples on a boat, which is costly to rent, difficult to navigate, and time-consuming to launch, he will turn to a new technology that is generating a lot of "buzz" in the research community: drones.
According to the researcher, who has been flying unmanned aerial vehicles recreationally for several years now, this could prove a much more efficient way to obtain data. He explains that once an image is taken of an area of known size, "[he] can calculate numbers of plastics per square area and start to get an idea of how much plastic is fluxing down the river."
And while Dr. Benfield normally focuses on microplastics, which are pieces of plastic measuring less than 5 millimeters in diameter, he will have a festive new target in the coming weeks to test out his new aerial method.
Mardi Gras beads and other parade throws clog Louisiana waterways annually. Last year, the City of New Orleans pulled about 100,000 pounds of beads from catch basins, which means that a significant number of the colorful toys likely made their way through the sewer and into the river.
Fish and other marine wildlife can mistake beads for food, and when they begin to break down into smaller pieces can wreak havoc on the entire food chain. Microplastics poison the water supply as well and may be present in as many as 94% of tap water sources in the United States.
Adding to this, one of the plastics used to make Mardi Gras beads, called polystyrene, can take up to a million years to fully decompose.
Dr. Benfield will be using a drone to take photos of the Mississippi River at a few points to see all floating plastic waste. He hopes to then be able to measure the amount of river waste caused by Louisiana's signature celebration.
Tiger TV will follow Dr. Benfield as his project takes flight.